Power Ranking the NFL's Top QB-WR Combinations

Paul Thelen@@ThePaulLenContributor IIMay 27, 2013

Power Ranking the NFL's Top QB-WR Combinations

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    There are few tandems in sports that are as visually stimulating as a synchronized quarterback and wide receiver combination dicing up a secondary.

    Whether it’s Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin, Joe Montana to Jerry Rice or Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison, watching a quarterback and his receiver gel together is a sensational sight. Unless, of course, you’re cheering or playing for the opposing team, wherein the combination of greatness is agonizing to view.

    The current NFL landscape is crowded with talented QB-WR tandems. To succinctly rate the best aerial duos, a grading rubric must first be cemented to create a transparent means of evaluation. I chose to create four categories to grade, each on a scale from one to five.

    The categories are:

    Production: This is pretty self explanatory with the statistical output of the combo. Surrounding offensive contributors are considered here. For example, the statistical success of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez affect the production score for Julio Jones.

    Equal Lifting: Here, the tandems are evaluated by which of the two players shoulder the most responsibility. Do they both make another better or does one player's talent severely outweigh the other? For example, the combination of Larry Fitzgerald and John Skelton would have a score of one due to the imbalance of their talents, whereas Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald would have a score of five during their Super Bowl run.

    Winning/ Contribution: How does the duo’s team fare and how instrumental are the two in the team’s overall success? 

    Intangibles: Qualifying as intangibles can be any of the following: Chemistry—does the duo perform significantly better when playing together as opposed to playing with others; Attacking Dynamism—Can they hurt teams in various ways, such as short passing, deep balls, timing routes, elevation balls etc; Defensive Coverages—Does the combination force defenses to play differently, such as double teams, safety help and altered defensive game plans. 

    The four categories are scored and then combined to create an overall score, from which the tandems are ranked.  

    Tiebreakers are settled by playoff impact. For example, Tom Brady to Randy Moss would win a tiebreaker over Tony Romo to Terrell Owens.

    Duo’s that played together in 2012 that won’t be together in 2013 did not qualify, such as Brady to Wes Welker and Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree. Condolences to 49ers fans—Crabtree’s injury must feel like swallowing a rusty nail sideways.

    Tight ends are also eligible, so don't freak out when you see Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski classified as receivers.  

    Ready? Let's begin.

Honorable Mentions

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    Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson: Overall Score: 13

    The two displayed solid chemistry in 2012 as both had career statistical seasons, with Jackson in yards and catches and Freeman in yards and touchdowns.

    When Freeman targeted Jackson, the result was only a catch 52.6 percent of time, a figure that hurt their production score. In the five games that Jackson surpassed 100 yards receiving, the Bucs went 0-5, affecting their winning contribution rating. Regardless, the duo made an impact in 2012 and are certainly worthy of honorable mention.


    Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne Overall Score: 14

    Anyone who thought Reggie Wayne was on his way out of the NFL was proven foolish in 2012 when the receiver posted his second-highest yardage total of his career. Considering that he played 10 seasons with Peyton Manning that is quite an accomplishment.

    Keeping the Colts duo just off the list was their mediocre intangible score. Most of the damage the two inflicted last season was between the 20-yard lines, as Wayne secured just five touchdowns. The combination also only connected on 54.7 percent of their targets. Still, a brief round of applause for the two is in order.

No. 10 Andy Dalton to A.J. Green

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    164  97  59.1  1,350  11   
    528  329  62.3   3,669 27   16


    Overall Score: 15

    Production: 4

    Both A.J. Green and Andy Dalton increased statistically in 2012 off the heels of productive rookie campaigns. Green accounted for 37.1 percent of Dalton's total yardage last season, which was the fourth-highest rate among QB-WR combinations last season. 


    Equal Lifting: 3

    Green carries more of the load than Dalton in this combination. After only two seasons as a professional, the electric receiver has already emerged as an elite player at his position. Dalton has been good, but Green has been spectacular.  


    Winning / Contribution: 4

    The duo have earned the Bengals consecutive wild-card berths in each of their two professional seasons. Their contributions to the Bengals' success have been essential. Limiting their score from becoming a five is their lack of a playoff victory, but given their youth, two playoff appearances are quite impressive.  


    Intangibles: 4 

    The Green-Dalton combination is dangerous because of their propensity to attack defenses downfield. When attempting passes of 20-plus yards from the line of scrimmage, the duo was 13 of 45 for 518 yards and four touchdowns. Ideally, you would like the completion rate to be higher, but defenses are forced to play on the side of caution against the Bengals due to the volume of downfield attempts.

No. 9 Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/Comp % Yards TD's QB INT's
    141  94  66.6  1,434  10   
    583  400  68.6  4,659  37  11 

    Overall Score: 15 (Win tiebreaker over Dalton-Green because of regular season record but lose to Schaub-Johnson because of playoff record.) 


    Production: 4

    Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas found their stride immediately in 2012, connecting five times for 110 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. It was the first of seven games that Manning and Thomas would eclipse the 100-yard mark for the Broncos. Keeping this tandem from a score of five is the production of Eric Decker, who had more touchdowns and just seven less catches than Thomas. 

    Equal Lifting: 3

    Without context, the meteoric rise in production by Thomas in 2012 would suggest that his new quarterback was the sole variable for his breakout season. The receiver's reception totals jumped from 32 in 2011 to 94 last season. However, the Denver offense that Tim Tebow led in 2011 wasn't conducive to the growth of wide receivers. Still, I can't go higher than a three here considering the Hall of Fame pedigree of Manning and the MVP considerations he deservingly attracted in 2012.  

    Winning / Contribution: 4

    It's hard to complain about a 13-3 record. The duo's contribution was significant, as they accounted for 30 percent of the team's passing yardage and anchored the NFL's second-ranked offense. They underachieved in the playoffs by losing their home opener, barring them from receiving a five. 


    Intangibles: 4 

    You might be wondering why the Manning-Thomas tandem made the list and the Manning-Decker tandem didn't.

    Raising the question is fair given the high level of production that Decker and Manning compiled in 2012, but where Manning-Decker doesn't compete with Manning-Thomas is intangibles. Thomas was the only player in the Broncos receiving corps who could challenge the defense vertically.

    Manning completed 16 passes of 20-plus yards downfield to Thomas. He completed just eight such passes to Decker. Manning-Thomas can assault a defense in a variety of ways, which garners more attention from opposing defenses.  

No. 8 Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    164  112  68.3  1598   
    544  350  64.3  4,008  22  12 

    Overall Score: 15 (Won tiebreaker over Dalton-Green and Manning-Thomas due to playoff success.)

    Production: 5

    It's difficult to find any fault in the Matt Schaub-Andre Johnson combination. They hooked up for 1,598 yards, second only to Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. Like the Detroit duo, the Texans' tandem didn't connect for as many touchdowns as they would have liked, but they score a perfect five nonetheless.

    Equal Lifting: 3

    Similar to the scoring of Dalton-Green duo, the Texans' aerial leaders don't operate on the same physical wavelengths. Schaub is a good quarterback, as there are at least a dozen NFL franchises that would prefer his services to their current quarterback. Johnson, however, is a special talent that makes quarterbacks look good by securing otherwise inaccurate passes. Johnson was a Pro Bowl player twice before Schaub arrived in Houston.


    Winning / Contribution: 3

    The Texans have endured their most successful seasons while Johnson and Schaub have been teamed together, but in 2011, each missed significant time, yet the Texans continued to win. Without Johnson the Texans were 4-2. Without Schaub, Houston was 5-4, including a playoff victory. Houston isn't as threatening a team without the Schaub-Johnson combo, but the Texans' signature lies with their defense and running game.


    Intangibles: 4

    Schaub and Johnson clearly have strong chemistry with one another. Their high level of production is more impressive when you consider the lack of other receiving threats Houston possesses. Opposing defenses key on Johnson in passing situations, yet the duo is still able to find success.  

No. 7 Eli Manning to Victor Cruz

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    137  86  62.8  1,092   10   
     536 321  59.9  3,948  26  15 

    Overall Score: 15 (Won tiebreaker over Dalton-Green, Manning-Thomas and Schaub-Johnson based on recent playoff success.)


    Production: 4

    The Eli Manning-Victor Cruz tandem has put up some serious numbers in their two seasons as teammates. After an 82-catch, 1,536-yard explosion in 2011, the duo followed that up with a solid 2012 campaign. They did lack the yardage of their 2011 season, but their 62.8 completion percentage, 86 receptions and 10 touchdowns were all improvements from their 2011 numbers.


    Equal Lifting: 4

    BeforeCruz arrived in New York, Eli Manning acquired a Super Bowl MVP, but teetered with his inconstancy. With Cruz in New York, Manning earned another Super Bowl MVP and has had two of his most productive regular seasons. Because of Manning's prior success, it may seem like he made Cruz a great receiver, but the Giants' Super Bowl run and improvement in Manning's consistency indicate otherwise. Granted, Manning still can become a more consistent quarterback, but the addition of Cruz is mutually beneficial. 

    Winning / Contribution: 4

    After this tandem's 2011 season, it is impossible to criticize either their ability to win or their level of contribution to New York's success, but after missing the playoffs in 2012, this duo loses a point.


    Intangibles: 3

    Cruz and Manning have demonstrated their ability to thrash a defense vertically, but when you break down their connections in 2012, the duo completed only seven passes of 20 yards or more. When Hakeem Nicks is healthy—the recent rarity of his health kept the Manning-Nicks tandem off this list—Manning has shown a preference for him over Cruz.

    Nicks had more catches, yards and touchdowns than Cruz in 2011. Where there is value for Cruz based on his durability, the Manning-Cruz tandem is weakened by the exceptional play of the Manning-Nicks tandem when healthy. With both Nicks and Cruz desiring long-term extension, the Giants will have to decide this season which tandem they want to move forward with.  

No. 6 Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/ Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    205  122    61.3 1,964   
     727 435  59.8  4,967  20  17 

    Overall Score: 16


    Production: 5

    This tandem was the most productive of any QB-WR combination in the NFL in 2012. Calvin Johnson broke the long-standing NFL record for receiving yards in a season. Matt Stafford ended up just south of 5,000 yards passing. 


    Equal Lifting: 3

    Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL. Notice that the word "arguably" is not in that sentence. There is little debate to Johnson's supremacy. Whether you favor statistics or the eye test; impact or longevity, Megatron takes the cake. Stafford is a good quarterback, but Johnson carries this tandem.

    In a thrilling early-season victory over the Tennessee Titans, backup quarterback Shaun Hill was thrust into action late in the fourth quarter. Hill wisely threw the ball in Johnson's direction, completing four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown to Johnson. Hill finished 10 of 13 for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime win.

    That isn't to state that Megatron would accumulate the same stats if he played the entire season with Hill, but it is evidence that even Hill could rack up numbers with Johnson on the receiving end of his passes.


    Winning / Contribution: 3

    The Lions finally qualified for the playoffs in 2011, but in 2012, slipped to 4-12. The tandem gets a three because of their run in 2011 and because of the significance of their contributions. The Stafford-Johnson duo accounted for 39.5 percent of the Lions' passing yards in 2012, second only to the Cutler-Marshall combo in Chicago. 


    Intangibles: 5

    When facing the Lions, there is no aspect of the passing game that this dynamic duo can't exploit. They strike underneath, over the top, on timing routes and on elevation balls by employing Stafford's touch and Johnson's height and jumping ability. 

    Defenses deploy double-teams against the Lions and show little respect for the running game yet the Stafford-Johnson connection was still nearly unstoppable.

No. 5 Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/ Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    135  85  64.9   982   
    670  422  63  5,177  43   19

    Overall Score: 16 (Win tiebreaker over Stafford-Johnson based on playoff success.)


    Production: 4

    This duo was able to put up solid numbers in 2012 despite Jimmy Graham's season-long wrist injury. Their stats diminished from their staggering 2011 marks, but completing 64.9 percent of targeted passes and collecting nine touchdowns is not easily accomplished.  


    Equal Lifting: 5

    Before you argue that Graham is a result of Drew Brees and the Sean Payton system, take note that the towering Graham is the only Pro Bowl receiver Brees has ever produced. They are both superior at their respected positions and since the tight end arrived in New Orleans, both Graham and Brees have elevated their levels of play.  


    Winning / Contribution: 3

    Brees and Graham compiled a nice run in 2011 en route to a 13-3 regular season and a playoff victory. However, without Sean Payton in 2012 the Saints fell to 7-9 and both Graham and Brees produced at a lower level.

    The injury to Graham and the Saints' bounty scandal hangover played a factor in their struggles in 2012—not too mention the disappearance of their defense—but I can't score this duo higher than a three based on what we saw last season. If this list was compiled in 2011, they would get a five without question and would have been strong candidates for the No. 1 spot.   


    Intangibles: 4

    The chemistry between Graham and Brees is exceptional. They possess precise understanding of each other's timing and are assassins in the 10- to 20-yard range. That is more impressive when you consider that New Orleans hasn't had a running game in a couple of seasons, which allows defenses to put attention on the duo.

    Their only weakness is their inability to attack defenses with the deep-passing game. In 2012 they completed only five passes thrown 200-plus yards, a number significantly lower than their contemporaries on this list.   

No. 4 Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
     181 118  65.2  1,508  11   
    434  255  58.8  3,033  19  11 

    Overall Score: 17


    Production: 5

    The Cutler-Marshall combination was lethal in 2012. The duo picked up where it left off in Denver in 2008 by setting Chicago Bears' single-season records in receptions and receiving yards. For Marshall to be third in the NFL in receiving yards despite Cutler being 24th in passing yards is testimony to this duo's production and condemnation of the Bears' offensive strategy. 


    Equal Lifting: 4

    Of all the tandems on this list, Cutler-Marshall may be the most compatible with another. Their evaluation benefits from their separation and reunion after playing together in Denver.

    Our ability to observe Cutler and Marshall struggle while playing apart from each other illustrates how much each is improved by the other's presence. In his first season back alongside Cutler, Marshall improved his 2011 numbers by 37 catches, 294 yards and five touchdowns.

    So why didn't the duo score a five? This list focuses primarily on 2012, with some consideration of 2011. Since Marshall has been reunited with Cutler, the quarterback has yet to experience a significant rise in his own statistical numbers.

    Bears fans will tell you, and with good reason, that the reason Cutler's numbers didn't rise in 2012 was the result of coaching and line protection incompetence.No matter how valid their argument, Cutler's QB rating dipped slightly in 2012 and, until it rises in the presence of Marshall, I can't give the duo a five. 


    Winning / Contribution: 3

    The Bears went 10-6 with Cutler and Marshall, but the duo has yet to play in a playoff game together. In their two full seasons together in Denver, the tandem was a combined 15-17. Where the Cutler-Marshall combination loses points for their lack of postseason qualification, they compensate with their tremendous contribution. The Cutler-Marshall combo accounted for 49.7 percent of Chicago's passing yards in 2012.  

    Intangibles: 5

    How this tandem was able to achieve their level of productivity was astonishing. Opposing defenses knew that in passing situations the ball was going to Marshall, yet the two completed 118 passes despite double- and, at times, triple-team coverage.

    Cutler and Marshall performed significantly better together than with others on the team. Cutler completed 65.2 percent of his passes targeted to Marshall as opposed to just 54 percent to non-Marshall Bears receivers. In his one full game without Cutler at quarterback, Marshall caught just two receptions for 21 yards.

    It is safe to say that Cutler and Marshall possess a significant amount of chemistry with one another. 

No. 3 Tony Romo to Dez Bryant

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/ Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    137  92  67.2  1,382   12   
    648  425  65.6  4,902  28  19 

    Overall Score: 18


    Production: 5

    As far as efficiency and balance are concerned, no one on this list accomplishes what the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant tandem do statistically. They are among the top combos in the league in catches, yards and touchdowns despite being just 14th in targets. This dynamic duo devoured opposing secondaries en route to 12 touchdowns, which is more than the Schaub-Johnson and Stafford-Johnson tandems combined to put up. 


    Equal Lifting: 5

    Bryant became the Cowboys' top receiver in 2012. Jason Witten caught more passes, but Bryant averaged six more yards per catch and scored nine more touchdowns than Witten did last season. With Bryant ascending as the Cowboys' top receiver, Romo's play elevated as the quarterback set a career high in single-season passing yards.  


    Winning / Contribution: 3

    The Romo-Bryant combination has yet to partake in the postseason, which affects their score. However, they are able to straddle a three by their significant contribution to the Cowboys' success. Romo threw 19 interceptions in 2012, only two of which were passes targeted towards Bryant.If the Cowboys were disappointed at 8-8 with Bryant and Romo, imagine how much worse they would be without them?  


    Intangibles: 5

    Attacking dynamism is the greatest component of the Romo-Bryant combination. They can dice up opposing defenses underneath with Romo's pinpoint accuracy and Bryant's home run threat.

    Perhaps more lethally, this duo can break the back of the defense with their deep-ball prowess. On passes thrown 20-plus yards, the two connected on 12 of 24 attempts for 591 yards and five touchdowns. For perspective, Romo's passes of 20 or more yards to Jason Witten were 2-for-11, 61 yards and no touchdowns while Miles Austin was 4-for-19, for 119 yards and two touchdowns in that category.

No. 2 Matt Ryan to Julio Jones

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/ Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    129  79  61.3   1,198 10    
    615  422  68.6  4,719  32  14 

    Overall Score: 18


    Production: 3

    The one detractor preventing the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones tandem from obtaining the NFL's top spot is their shared production with Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. Jones caught more touchdowns from Ryan than Gonzalez or White, but accumulated fewer receptions than his teammates. Until Jones emerges as the sole No. 1 threat in the Falcons' passing game—all signs point to this coming season—the duo can't eclipse a score of three.


    Equal Lifting: 5

    Ryan had been steadily improving year-to-year over his career until 2012 when his numbers rose across the boards. The drastic rise in Ryan's production coexisted with the increase in Atlanta's featuring of Jones. Jones played 779 snaps and was targeted 96 times in 2011. In 2012, the second-year receiver played 968 snaps and was targeted 129 times. Coincidence? Not at all.

    Both Ryan and Jones are top-five players at their positions.


    Winning / Contribution: 5

    After a 13-3 regular season, the Falcons were able to capture their elusive playoff victory by advancing to the NFC Championship Game. That win over the Packers silenced Ryan's naysayers who incessantly criticized the quarterback's lack of playoff success. How the Ryan-Jones duo balled in their two playoff games placed a stamp on their skills as a QB-WR combination. The two compiled 17 completions for 241 yards and two touchdowns. 


    Intangibles: 5

    This duo scores a perfect score on their intangibles because of their quickly acquired chemistry, attacking dynamic and defensive attention.

    In their second year as teammates, Jones and Ryan displayed an instant chemistry, much to the chagrin of opposing defenses. Making their chemistry more lethal was that the duo can attack defenses from all angles. Ryan completed 15 of 15 passes behind the line of scrimmage to Jones, who took two for touchdowns. The duo also connected on 14 passes of 20-plus yards, including seven for touchdowns..

No. 1 Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski

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    Targets/Attempts Catches/Completions Catch %/ Comp % Yards TD's QB INTs
    78  55  70.5  790  11   
    637  401  63   4,827  34   8

    Overall Score: 19


    Production: 4

    Despite missing five games in 2012, Rob Gronkowski hauled in 11 Tom Brady touchdown passes, tying for fourth in the NFL in touchdowns. In the last two seasons combined, the duo has tallied 28 touchdowns in just 27 games. The two just missed a perfect score due to time missed by Gronkowski in 2012.


    Equal Lifting: 5

    Brady makes most receivers look good. He has even made a few receivers look great, but only Randy Moss and Gronkowski have looked unstoppable when partnered with Brady. Like Moss, Gronkowski elevates the level of Brady's play by expanding the avenues for attacking defenses. With his massive frame and Cottonelle-soft hands, Gronkowki allows Brady to throw passes in skinny windows he wouldn't normally test. 


    Winning / Contribution: 5

    In three seasons together, including the postseason, the Brady-Gronkowski duo is 38-10 and has connected for 41 touchdowns. Because of the two-tight end base offense that New England employs, having Gronkowski in the lineup is essential. In 2012, the Patriots and Brady saw their productivity waver when Gronk was sidelined with injury.    


    Intangibles: 5

    Brady and Gronkowski are the most lethal QB-WR combination in the NFL. They're efficient, multi-faceted, synchronized and experienced. In 2012, defenses couldn't stop the Pats' duo, which completed 70.5 percent of their targeted passes. Not once did a Brady pass thrown in Gronkowski's direction result in an interception. 

    The Patriots don't operate at the same level of calibration that they do with this duo on the field. In the Patriots' 2011-12 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, Gronkowski was hobbled and the Brady-led offense struggled to maintain its momentum. In the 2012-13 AFC Championship Game loss to Baltimore in which Gronkowski didn't play, the Patriots scored a season-low 13 points and looked even more out-of-sync than they did in their Super Bowl loss.

    If the Patriots want to reclaim the NFL hierarchy, they need Gronkowski to stay healthy.